Bringing Biomimicry To Cement, Offices and Daily Life

The Biomimicry Institute’s Educators’ Summit came to San Francisco last week, and it was a good chance to hear some important contributors to bio-inspired design and educators who are striving to teach this relatively new subject. Janine Benyus, the head of the institute, gave the keynote address, and Steven Vogel, Brent Constantz, Christopher Viney and Valerie Casey were among the headliners. The hundred-odd participants also gathered in five different workshops to discuss specific issues unique to the field. 

Steven Vogel is the author of several books on biomechanics, including “Cats' Paws and Catapults,” a popular and classic text on mechanics that includes a comparison of nature and technology solutions to mechanical challenges. His classic “Life in Moving Fluids” has recently been published in a second, paperback edition and he explained his latest invention, the Nose House, a climate control design inspired by the passive temperature control found in the turbinates of certain mammals’ noses, which I wrote about previously

Vogel, now retired from Duke University, is a master communicator, delivering a soothing storyline about complex phenomena that leaves you wondering how you came to be so smart. He’s a great believer in hands-on exploration and much of his talk was advising us on what we should know to carry on his type of work, including what’s on aisle four of your local hardware store. 

Brent Constantz, another serial inventor, spoke of his company, Calera Corporation, and their efforts to combat global climate change by sequestering carbon, which I've written about before. Calera has the backing of Vinod Khosla and Bechtel Corporation, among others, and if their production can be brought up to scale, it offers one of the most promising techniques for reducing carbon in our atmosphere.  

The proprietary process captures CO2, waste heat and fly ash from power plant smokestacks (Moss Landing Power Plant, the location of one of Calera's projects, is shown above), and runs the CO2 through seawater to produce calcium carbonate that is used to make cement. Three outcomes result: The flue gas is cleaned of its harmful CO2, carbon is sequestered in the cement (thereby saving further carbon production from mining and transportation of cement that would otherwise have to be made), and seawater is pretreated for desalination for drinking water.  

Constantz started his company after studying coral reefs and their biomineralization techniques. His breakthrough was in discovering how calcite and aragonite, polymorphs of calcium carbonate, are nucleated by the marine organisms, and then in developing a benchtop technique for doing that without them. He is not new to biomineralization techniques, having developed a highly successful, and now standard, medical procedure for growing artificial bone to repair fractures.